Leah Litwak grew up around agriculture in her northern Maryland hometown of Jarrettsville. Her high school celebrated Bring Your Tractor to School Day and farmers markets were a community staple in the region long before it became trendy.
As a child, Litwak spent her time in the family garden—dirt, bugs, and all. She recognized early on what the fruits (and veggies) of her labor meant: delicious supper, valuable nutrients, and time spent together.
In addition to health and sustenance, for Litwak, food has always been a gateway to shared experiences with the people she cares about most. Today, as a market vendor for Tonnemaker Hill Farm, food has also given Litwak an avenue to connect with her new surroundings in Seattle.
“It’s cultural, community-building, it brings people to the table,” the senior in Environmental Studies said. “All of my best memories involve food.”
But Litwak understands that being able to look at food through this lens is a luxury, and that many Americans struggle to put food on the table at all.
Today, 48.1 million people in the United States live in food-insecure households. Closer to home, Washington state is the 23rd hungriest state in the country, where one in five children live without adequate food.
Through her Environmental Studies Capstone project at UW’s College of the Environment, Litwak took a deeper look at food access and security in King County. More specifically, she wanted to identify opportunities for better integration of nutrition assistance programs at local farmers markets.
The number of farmers markets in the United States that accept food assistance currencies has skyrocketed in recent years, making it easier for more people to choose nutrient-packed local goods over grocery stores’ cheaper, more calorie-dense offerings.
In Washington, it’s even more advantageous to use SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) at farmers markets, where purchases are matched dollar-for-dollar by the Fresh Bucks initiative.
But Litwak’s research suggests that there’s still a major barrier to more successful implementation: Vendors at local farmers markets aren’t always up to speed on how to interact with food assistance currencies.
From SNAP/EBT tokens and Senior Checks to FMNP WIC, a vendor could see five different food assistance currencies on any given market day. Each type has its own expiration date, denomination, processing guidelines, and specifications for what can and can’t be purchased.
Through surveys developed with her project mentor and distributed at three local farmers markets, Litwak found that about 80 percent of market vendors have never received training on how to work with food assistance currencies.
When asked which kinds of products can be purchased with SNAP/EBT but not with Fresh Bucks, nearly three-quarters of respondents answered incorrectly or couldn’t answer at all.
Litwak determined that better and more alignment between nutrition assistance organizations is an important step to wider implementation. She created a Market Currency Guide for vendors to use as a handy resource when they need to know the details of any food assistance currency. In the future, she thinks it could be improved, more widely distributed, and translated into more languages for full impact.
She also suggests more educational opportunities and training sessions for vendors and increased communication between market managers, vendors, and nutrition assistance participants.
“In 2008, 750 farmers markets were accepting SNAP. In 2015, it had grown to more than 3,200, a phenomenal increase,” Litwak said. “With that many markets participating, it really has the potential to create this huge positive change on our food system. But a big part of that depends on whether these programs are used correctly and effectively.”
Story and video by: Kelly Knickerbocker, firstname.lastname@example.org